How Schools Could Use Social Media

This is #12 on Chris Brogan’s 100 Blog Topics list, and is part of the 100 Topics Challenge.

There's an opportunity to incorporate social media into the classroom. Will school boards take it?
There's an opportunity to incorporate social media into the classroom. Will school boards take it?

If I had a dollar for every kid that tries to get me to answer their homework questions on Yahoo! Answers, I might have a better than average chance of paying all my bills this month.

Yes, we happen to live in an age where things are changing pretty fast. It still puzzles me that the most common reaction by schools and universities to the social media phenomenon is to try and ban it from the classroom. Hence the proliferation of websites that try to catch cheaters.

If I was running the show, I would try a different tactic: co-opt social media. Make it part of the game. There’s a great learning opportunity here, and it is being missed – at least in North America. In Europe, there’s a heavy push to incorporate e-learning into the classroom (see for some interesting related topics).

Here is how I react when somebody tries to get me to do their homework for them: hey kid, there is an awesome learning opportunity here. I’m not going to solve the problem for you, but I will try to teach you a few interesting things. Maybe I’ll rephrase the question for you so you can understand it better. Maybe I’ll point you in the right direction so that you can discover places online where you can learn more about the problem at hand. Maybe I’ll give you a few pointers on ways to approach a solution. Sounds more like a tutorial? Self assisted learning opportunity?

One critical factor is that one really needs something like a walled garden – at least initially, and at least for younger students. If you toss them onto Yahoo Answers and tell them “good luck kid”, they’re going to come back with some interesting (and probably odd) notions about how the world works. For one thing, many of the so-called experts on sites like these, ain’t. Even on the late, great, there were more than a fair share of kooks. Many of the e-learning projects underway (i.e. the Second Life-based project in the UK) are building things around such walled gardens.

If schools – or maybe school districts – had a site that only kids and teachers could login to, it could be a powerful tool. You need a critical number of users before something like this becomes useful. I don’t think one school is sufficient. On the other hand, if the whole world is involved, it may become too unwieldy (and expensive to maintain – let alone the factor of who owns and manages it).

Let other kids get involved in teaching their peers. After all, teaching something is often the best way to learn it.

Let adult teachers supervise and guide the process. I envision a system that categorizes data by topic, and allows the teacher to put a filter on it – right now you can learning anything you want about math. Here’s todays quick lesson and some questions to answer. Here are the resources to learn more. Need help? Here’s what everyone else in the class is working on? Here’s who else in the school district can help you? Here’s what last year’s class did.

Put in scoring mechanisms so that students can get competitive if they want. Help your fellow student, two points. Get rated for the best question by teach and peers? Bonus points! It would be critical to balance a competitive system so that it doesn’t leave some students behind, possibly through an opt-out system. Or just let kids see their own score and rank, without access to anyone else’s.

Build in the day’s lessons in a way that the students can explore the topic in their own way and at their own pace, but with guides and video tutorials to help them if they get stuck. I know that this kind of learning methodology doesn’t work for everyone. There has to be a way to incorporate self directed learning into a pedagogical system though.

I wish there had been something like that when I was growing up. Yes, there were computers in the classroom (I got lucky with my schooling). Yes, we learned how to program in Basic and Logo. I also grew up reading Ender’s Game, and there were definite precursors to e-learning social media in there. The concepts involved here aren’t new, and the technology involved isn’t particularly challenging any more. There are even some fairly big companies building pieces of the puzzle – hence Blackbaud and their myriad competitors (e-learning overall is at least a $50 billion USD per year industry). All something like this needs is a vision, some corporate sponsors, and a lot of courage from school boards.

2 responses on “How Schools Could Use Social Media

  1. sol

    I think you’re definitely right about the walled garden – mind you students should also have access to the wild web outside their garden, so long as they know the perils that await them there 😉
    Sersiouly, what needs to be done is a more broad “media awareness” sort of course. I guess this should also include topics on research methods, rational thinking, and basic logic. None of these topics are all that new but were never really taught when I was in school. Teaching them at a young age in the context of the Web might even make the need for a walled garden obsolete.

    And you’d also need teachers with a clue. I think this might be one of the biggest obstacles. Even people I know who are my age (and younger!) entering teaching often find some kids know as much or more about basic computer skills than they do. I still remember how out-of-date the computer skills of my high school librarian and computer’s teachers were.

    And finally, a semi-relevant cartoon about the dangers of using Wikipedia as a primary research source:

    1. admin Post author

      I think you’ve cottoned onto the critical path factor here: the adoption of technology in schools is limited to the pace at which new, younger teachers replace older ones.

      I think it is going to be almost impossible to get older teachers to adopt social media. This isn’t a knock on their ability to learn new technology overall (I know too many older people who use computers in amazing ways to make that generalization), but rather its a generational thing: our parent’s generation sorta, kinda “gets” Facebook. I’m not sure if anyone older than them would. And they probably aren’t going to be delving into FBML and building new apps any time soon.

      Its the lack of fear of technology, combined with a funny sort of playfulness that is needed to get the most out of social media.